Same as it ever was

The juxtaposition of two stories on last week's front page - one about a failed Interior Department modernization project and the second about a flagging Federal Aviation Administration modernization project - again reminds us that procurement reform alone cannot ensure the success of any major federal information technology project.

Interior's Automated Land and Mineral Record System (ALMRS), designed to digitize more than a billion pages of documents used to manage mineral and oil leases on federal lands as well as land and timber sales, was a throwback to the old days of government-specific systems. After years of delays, cost overruns and tests that showed the system did not work, Interior killed the project. The agency now is trying to salvage what it can out of the $411 million it spent on the program. No surprise. Same old story.

The FAA's $1 billion-plus Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), the new air traffic control system for towers, was supposed to be different. In 1996 Congress freed the FAA from what the agency considered burdensome acquisition regulations so that future IT acquisitions would not suffer the fate of ballooning costs, long delays and a system that does not work.

But last week the air traffic controllers group said the FAA would delay the rollout of STARS until the end of the year - the system's second delay - and would deploy a "patch" system until STARS can be rolled out.

In addition, a test last month showed that STARS' response times were too slow. Does this sound familiar?

The FAA's new way of doing business has had some successes, and, of course, no one expects a system as complex as STARS to escape all turbulence. But the primary goal of the FAA's new acquisition system was to speed up the process of development by quickly fixing problems. Yet STARS has been bogged down by some problems - such as the lack of involvement by air traffic controllers - from the outset.

If the FAA is to avoid STARS becoming another ALMRS, it must change its culture. Procurement reform doesn't just mean buying commercial products and adopting them to government processes; it also means changing those processes to fit commercial products.

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